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Fine Brothers Discuss Rebranding and the Future of Digital Agencies

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Fine, previously known as Fine Design Group, is one of the oldest “digital agencies” around. After founding the company in the halcyon dial-up days of 1994, brothers Kenn Fine and Steven Fine created “some of the first marketing websites on the public Internet” with the help of partner Josh Kelly.

While the Fine brothers made their livings in molecular biology and bicycle apparel, Kelly had a different kind of background: advertising. In fact, he played a marketing role at DDB/Publicis early in his career, which explains the future direction of his partners’ digital branding business.

Now the Fine brothers have progressed, through two decades of digital work, to become a shop specializing in the sorts of things that dominate conversations in the ad industry: “websites, mobile sites, digital video, applications, social media, and search engines.” In their own words, they’re “an agency for the digital age.

The redesign specialists recently gave their own home page a makeover and changed their name — and they collectively answered our questions about their own rebranding and the future of the agency model in the digital world.

Why did you feel the need to rebrand?

For us, it was the culminating step in a long, incremental evolution. In fact, evolution’s a good analogy – at some point, a fish grew little legs, made its first forays onto the beach, started breathing oxygen for longer periods. The question is, at what point do we officially start calling that fish an amphibian? In our case, our work and its impact have shifted dramatically over the past 5-8 years.

We’d found ourselves and others increasingly using our shortened and more inclusive name, FINE, in conversation because it better encompassed the breadth of work we do that goes beyond design (at least in the traditional sense), or any one tactic or discipline. And we saw the need to talk about our work online in the same way we do in conversation. So for us, the rebrand is a way to ritualize a transformation with our name and online presence that had already happened organically over time.

What does your rebranding project mean in terms of the history of the agency and its new direction?

We have a long history, or we have a short one, depending upon how you look at it. On the one hand, we’ve been around for 20 years. On the other, we’ve predictively adapted and morphed a number of times during that span. The major adaptation was from a traditional graphic design studio, which immediately suggests a focus on print and identity, into a digital firm, with the ability to execute in the medium that’s revolutionized communication.

The next evolution for us has been to de-emphasize specific tactics and focus more on the core challenges of communicating brands in the digital age. That means strategy and consulting, grounded in the practicalities of where brands need to be in order to connect with today’s customer. That puts us in the middle of some pretty complex and transformative issues that businesses and brands face as they try and sort out who they’ll be going forward.

Ironically, when you think about things from the perspective of today’s digital consumer and have enough expertise to execute digital tools, you can move past the obvious things and into other areas of brand activation – in fact,  if you’re doing it right you’ll actually be improving products and their delivery.

Note: Here’s a timeline of the agency’s work since its inception that neatly parallels the evolution of our precious Internet itself (note the early work for Symantec and Kmart):

Fine timeline

What will be different about the new FINE?

Here again, we’re trying to capture and amplify something that’s been developing for awhile. But we think the act of articulating who we are is going to help us do what we do better.

We have this new and somewhat mysterious tagline on our home page: “Bring Friends”. It’s shorthand for the longer “The Digital World Can Be Scary. Bring Friends.” So it’s meant to clarify our evolution as consultative partners, helping brands figure what to do and what not to do, how our clients see us as trusted advisors and people who help shape success in an increasingly complex marketing world.

That means a greater emphasis on consultation, applying tools of digital like UX and IA to physical experience, or the tools of traditional branding to digital. To do that well, brands need to look for those who can execute a variety of projects/platforms and be the connective tissue. There’s been a ton written lately (a recent study by Adobe, for instance) about how CMO’s lose sleep over digital; our new direction is to make them some warm milk and sing them a lullaby so they wake up ready to take on the digital world.

How does this decision reflect on changing trends in the industry at large?

Every industry is seeing the same thing: an incredible rate of change brought about by technology and its effect on people. It’s to the extent that the lines between industries are blurring. It’s tough to answer that question specific to our industry, because we’re not always entirely sure what industry we’re in.

We hear sometimes we’re in a competitive set ranging in size from agencies of a few to agencies of a few thousand, all with different focal areas of expertise. Our impression is that it’s increasingly difficult for clients to understand the right mix of partners and where to draw meaningful lines between them. So we say, we’ll help you. Maybe others will, too. Don’t get so caught up in the ever-changing tactics that you forget it’s all about relationships with your agencies and your customers.

What’s your impression of the current state of traditional vs. digital/boutique agencies? Are the old-school ad guys right to be concerned?

Any good agency has some variation of the same core competency: the ability to understand brands and customers and connect the two in meaningful ways. By their definition, though, most agencies are predisposed to certain tactics and ways of doing that which color their approach. So that’s where old-school agencies need to be especially careful — they can have a vested interest and giant infrastructure associated with certain tactics that may or may not be relevant in an age of immense change.

In truth, though, there’s also plenty of snake oil from new agencies or other firms trying to sell clients the flashy new platform. One extreme relies too much on the cache of the name brand ad agency, the other on client fears that they’re not keeping up with the next big thing. We do know this: everyone needs to know enough about digital to be more than dangerous. You have to have enough practical understanding of databases, content, search, front-end web experiences on different devices to be able to not worry about what you don’t know and take advantage of what you do.

For many brands, it’s time to think digital first. Folks may still fall asleep with the TV on, but they’re using their smart phone as a pillow.

How will agency relationships change in coming years?

The thing for clients to know is that how you assemble and maintain agency relationships, and now even platforms and tools, is in itself part of how you define and differentiate your brand. There’s no longer that simple clarity of a few specialties, but rather a larger number of potential contributors that may overlap or complement each other in unique ways.

Some will rise to the level of that small handful of trusted agencies or individuals that can help put it all in some kind of context without being limited by their shortcomings in some tactics or strengths in others. That’s our intention behind “Bring Friends”. There will increasingly be gray area between agencies, but those that help brands figure out how best to address business, brand, and customer experience will be in the center of the trust circle.

What do we think? How accurate is Fine’s industry diagnosis?

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